Last year I read the book The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries by Rodney Stark, published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1997. I was intrigued by the subtitle, as it’s a question I often wondered about. How did Christianity dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization? I had my own theories, of course, but it was fascinating to read a non-Christian sociologist’s analytical perspective on the matter. (At the time of publication, Stark identified as an agnostic, but in a 2007 interview with Massimo Introvigne, he said that he now identifies as an “independent Christian.”)
Stark’s research led him to the following conclusion:
Christianity did not grow because of miracle working in the marketplaces (although there may have been much of that going on), or because Constantine said it should, or even because the martyrs gave it such credibility. It grew because Christians constituted an intense community, able to generate the “invincible obstinacy” [against paganism] that so offended the younger Pliny but yielded immense religious rewards. And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the “good news.” . . .
Let me state my thesis: Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.
I believe that it was the religion’s particular doctrines that permitted Christianity to be among the most sweeping and successful revitalization movements in history. And it was the way these doctrines took on actual flesh, the way they directed organizational actions and individual behavior, that led to the rise of Christianity. (208, 211)
In his elaboration of this thesis, Stark proposes the following reasons for Christianity’s rapid growth in the first few centuries of the Common Era.
Christianity radically and attractively redefined the God-to-man and man-to-man relationships.
Christianity teaches that God is a God of universal and self-giving love, and that obligates us to love not just those who belong to our family, country, or religion, but all people, even if that means disadvantaging ourselves.
Something distinctive did come into the world with the development of Judeo-Christian thought: the linking of a highly social ethical code with religion. There was nothing new in the idea that the supernatural makes behavioral demands upon humans—the gods have always wanted sacrifices and worship. Nor was there anything new in the notion that the supernatural will respond to offerings—that the gods can be induced to exchange services for sacrifices. What was new was the notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural. The Christian teaching that God loves those who love him was alien to pagan beliefs. [Ramsay] MacMullen has noted [in his 1981 book Paganism in the Roman Empire] that from the pagan perspective “what mattered was . . . the service that the deity could provide, since a god (as Aristotle had long taught) could feel no love in response to that offered.” Equally alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another. Moreover, such responsibilities were to be extended beyond the bonds of family and tribe, indeed to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). These were revolutionary ideas. (86, emphasis added)
Such teachings provided a moral order based not on reason or self-interest, but on mutual obligation and sacrifice. The beauty of these virtues is in part what attracted new converts to the faith.
One implication of the above is that Christianity provided social services that the government did not.
At a time when welfare and social security and health care plans did not exist, the church was essential in providing such aid. They looked after not only their own, but those outside their community as well. The Roman emperors recognized, however reluctantly, that Christians filled a role that they were not effectively filling. And individuals were attracted to the security the church afforded and likely curious about what it was that inspired such generosity.
In the fourth century, the emperor Julian launched a campaign to institute pagan charities in an effort to match the Christians. Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362 that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their “moral character, even if pretended,” and by their “benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.” In a letter to another priest, Julian wrote, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” And he also wrote, “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
Clearly, Julian loathed “the Galileans.” He even suspected that their benevolence had ulterior motives. But he recognized that his charities and that of organized paganism paled in comparison with Christian efforts that had created “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services” [Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity. New York: Atheneum, 1976: 75]. By Julian’s day in the fourth century it was too late to overtake this colossal result, the seeds for which had been planted in such teachings as “I am my brother’s keeper,” “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you,” and “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (83-84, emphasis added)
The church was also essential in providing nursing care to plague victims, oftentimes at the expense of their own lives. The bishop Dionysius wrote that this was a form of martyrdom. Whereas pagan elites and their priests simply fled the affected cities, some even leaving family members behind, Christian presbyters, deacons, and laymen stayed to provide food, water, and friendship to their neighbors. So after consecutive epidemics had swept through a city, a disproportionate number of those remaining would either have been Christians or pagans who had been ministered to by Christians.
Christianity treated women better than all the other religions did.
Those contemporary voices who denounce Christianity as patriarchal and sexist may be surprised to know that within the early Christian subculture, women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large. They served, for example, as deacons, teachers, church planters, and evangelists, and were given much more honor and respect than were the women in pagan subcultures. Stark quotes several historians of the early church as well as biblical scholars on this issue to demonstrate the consensus that women held positions of honor and authority within early Christianity. Here are just a few:
This text teaches with the authority of the Apostle that . . . there are, as we have already said, women deacons in the Church, and that women, who have given assistance to so many people and who by their good works deserve to be praised by the Apostle, ought to be accepted in the diaconate.—Origen, early third century, in a comment on Paul’s letter to the Romans
The Christian clergy . . . took a step that separated them from the rabbis of Palestine . . . [T]hey welcomed women as patrons and even offered women roles in which they could act as collaborators.—Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity
Women . . . are Paul’s fellow workers as evangelists and teachers. Both in terms of their position in the larger society and in terms of their participation in the Christian communities, then, a number of women broke through the normal expectations of female roles.—Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians
Christianity was also the first religion to give married women rights by placing obligations on the husband:
Christians condemned promiscuity in men as well as in women and stressed the obligations of husbands toward wives as well as those of wives toward husbands. . . . The symmetry of the relationship Paul described [in 1 Corinthians 7:2-7] was at total variance, not only with pagan culture, but with Jewish culture as well. (123)
Christians regarded all human life as sacred and thus had more children than the pagans did.
Christians did not practice abortion or exposure of infants; in fact, they passionately condemned such practices. It was common for the Greeks, Romans, and those of other ancient cultures to kill unwanted babies—those who were deformed, female, or illegitimate—by leaving them outside to die from exposure to the elements or from being eaten by wild animals. Christians, though, believe that all human life is precious to God and worth advocating for. They were known to take in victims of attempted infanticide and to adopt children whose families could no longer support them. In this way, their numbers grew.
Christianity was open to people of all ethnicities.
The Christian God is not the exclusive possession of any one people group; he is the world’s. His blessings are available to all peoples, regardless of region or race, and devotion to him does not require the giving up of one’s ethnic identity. In this sense, Christianity was the most inclusive of all the ancient religions.
In my judgment, a major way in which Christianity served as a revitalization movement within the empire was in offering a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity. All were welcome without need to dispense with ethnic ties. . . . In this way Christianity first evaded and then overwhelmed the ethnic barrier that had prevented Judaism from serving as the basis for revitalization. (213)
In the book Stark also discusses Christianity’s rate of growth (including numerical estimates), the demographics of the early church, the direction of its spread and the areas of highest concentration, and the causes and effects of its marriage to the state under the rule of Constantine. I heartily recommend it.
Rodney Stark also came out with a new book last year, titled The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion. The publisher’s description says that while The Rise of Christianity examines the early success of Christianity (primarily how it conquered Rome), this new volume tells a more extensive story, discussing how Christianity has maintained its growth and vigor through various eras of history until the present day.
The Rise of Christianity made me shudder to think what the world would look like if the Christian worldview hadn’t triumphed over the Roman one when it did. I’ve heard it said that many of Western society’s moral values (like mercy, compassion, forgiveness, sanctity of life and marriage, etc.) originated with Christianity, but this book gave me my first sweeping look at the ancient sources that affirm such a claim, as first-century writers testified to and expressed puzzlement over such virtues demonstrated by Christians. It disappointed me to think that Christianity doesn’t have as bright a witness anymore in the eyes of the world. Much more common than being known for our love and grace, we Christians are known for our judgmentalism and hypocrisy.
Stark wrote that Christianity exposed the weaknesses of paganism and provided an alternative way of life, one in which love, acceptance, and care were central. Over and against the self-promoting reason of the Romans, Christians acted with self-denying grace. They were able to do so because, they professed, God had dealt graciously with them.
As an example: Mercy was regarded in pagan society as a character defect; because it involves providing unearned help or relief, it was deemed contrary to justice and therefore irrational. Pity, too, was regarded as a vice rather than a virtue, because it was thought to be based on impulsiveness. Christianity, however, teaches that humans are bearers of God’s image on earth and therefore ought to seek to mimic his moral attributes, chief of which are mercy and pity. God showed us mercy when we did not deserve it, so why shouldn’t we likewise show mercy to others? The early Christians embraced those whom the Greeks and Romans considered useless to society—orphans, beggars, the elderly, the disabled. The church not only included such outcasts in their community but showed them that they had value. Christianity provided a superior sense of belonging and purpose than Rome did, and so converts were added daily.
As a Christian, I would say that in addition to the reasons proposed by Stark, the Holy Spirit was at work in the establishment and growth of the Jesus movement, convicting hearts of sin and drawing people into a realization of who God was and what he had done to deal with sin and what its implications are for daily living. People may have been attracted at first to the promise of community support or more dignified treatment, but what held them there and made them willing to die for this new cause was something more powerful than external benefits. It had to have been their personal experience of God himself—but they were guided there, as Stark suggests in less direct terms, by the love of Christ on display in the lives of the first Christians.
Oh that the church today would be the loving, supportive, inclusive community that it was in its early days! Guiding people into a saving knowledge of Christ!